After reading this chapter, you will be able to:
THE ANNUAL MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS
are notable for outrageous dress and behavior, and the 2009 awards show included its share of “anything goes” moments. One memorable occurrence involved hip-hop singer Kanye West disrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for the Best Female Video and beginning a tirade about Beyonce Knowles being more deserving of the award. The audience gasped (some booed) and Swift appeared stunned. Later in the ceremony, Knowles invited Swift onstage and said that she remembered being a teenage member of the group Destiny’s Child and being nominated for an MTV award. Knowles recalled how excited she had been as a nominee and eventual winner and that she wanted Taylor to have her moment in the spotlight. The two then shared a warm embrace, and Swift completed her acceptance speech. Knowles was widely lauded for the compassion and generosity she showed toward Swift.1
The different communication styles exhibited by West, Knowles, and Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony illustrate how civil and uncivil communication can affect our and others’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior. You most likely have never experienced a situation similar to the MTV Awards show during which Kanye West uncivilly snatched the microphone away from Taylor Swift, but you probably have experienced a situation in which someone communicated to you in an uncivil manner. When communicators fail to engage in civil communication, it creates more than hurt feelings or communication problems. Civil and uncivil communication can also influence how others perceive us and our behavior. Whether you are in the audience at a live event such as the MTV Video Music Awards; engaging in conversation or debate; reading tweets, texts, blogs, or websites; watching television; or driving along a highway, it’s important to remember that how we communicate affects how others communicate with us. These are compelling reasons to study communication and to attempt to improve our communication.
Researchers have found that individuals and society experience costs associated with uncivil communication. By choosing civility, we can:2
• Lower our stress levels, thus avoiding the health issues associated with it
• Increase productivity at work
• Avoid accidents caused by aggressive driving (road rage)
• Avoid personal injury caused by sidewalk rage, parking lot rage, and air rage
• Contribute to the well-being of the human spirit
President Barack Obama has emphasized the importance of civil communication at various times during his presidency. Speaking at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast, Obama urged Americans to avoid needless political attacks and personal insults. In his University of Michigan 2010 commencement address, the president warned that uncivil communication diminishes the possibility of compromise, undermines democratic deliberation, and prevents us from learning about legitimate but bridgeable differences.3
In 2011, after the politically motivated shootings in Tucson, Arizona, where 6 people were killed and 12 were wounded, President Obama remarked:
At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds…. Only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make … [the shooting victims] proud…. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.4
We’ll begin our study of communication with a discussion of the theme of this text—that civility and ethics are critical for responsible thinking, decision-making, and communication choices. We believe that civil and ethical communication is necessary across all types of communication (i.e., intrapersonal, interpersonal, small group, public, and mediated and technology-related communication) and across all contexts of communication (e.g., cultural, the workplace, and gender contexts).
Research bears out the importance of civility. For example, the 2010 Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics found that more than 95 percent of their respondents agree that civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy, and 87 percent of respondents believe that it is possible to disagree in a
In addition, people believe that social networking sites should be places of civility and should leave the sites when they encounter incivility. A 2010 poll released by Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, and KRC Research has found that almost one-third of Americans are “tuning out” of social networking sites because of uncivil communication. Specifically, 45 percent have blocked or unfriended someone because of uncivil comments, 38 percent have stopped visiting an online site because of incivility there, and 25 percent have dropped out of an online community because of uncivil discourse.6
Finally, while many people have been targets of uncivil communication, about 6 in 10 Americans also admit that they have occasionally engaged in uncivil communication.7
The point we are making is that most people want to engage in communication that is civil. Sometimes we fail, and when we do, it’s often because we don’t have the skills to be civil. This book is designed to provide you with the skills to engage in civil communication—communication that enriches the lives of those involved in it.
Much of the civility content we refer to throughout this book is based on the work of two scholars: P. M. Forni, author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct
and founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project; and Stephen L. Carter, Professor of Law at Yale University and author of Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy.
Forni’s definition of civility focuses on ideas such as abiding by rules, compassion, consideration, courtesy, decency, honesty, manners, politeness, and tact.8
Carter’s definition focuses on civility as a choice we make on behalf of others—disciplining our passions for the sake of cooperation and limiting our language to create community.9
Civil communication is the application of civility to our everyday communication encounters and will be the focus of this book. According to Forni, this means communicating with respect, restraint, and responsibility.10
He believes we do not need to abandon who we are or what we believe in to engage in civil behavior. Instead, Forni says, civil communication involves being “aware of others and weaving restraint, respect, and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness.”11
For example, imagine that you and a classmate are engaged in a debate about politics in which you hold very different viewpoints. Civil communication does not call for you to give up your beliefs or remain silent in response to your conversation partner’s comments. Instead, civil communication allows you to speak your mind in a way that is respectful (e.g., you listen well and acknowledge your partner’s points), demonstrates restraint (e.g., you refrain from name-calling and insults), and is responsible (e.g., you remember that your comments have the potential to affect your community—in this case, your debate partner and classmates). Carter further describes civil communication as:12
• Reflecting the realization that we don’t have to like others to act in a civil manner
• Illustrating good manners, politeness, and courtesy
• Doing good rather than harm
• Disagreeing respectfully and listening to others knowing that they may be right and we may be wrong
• Forgoing the urge to say anything that comes to mind; instead, thinking carefully about how our comments will affect others